PATTY COGEN, M.A., Ed.D.,
An adoptive mother writes the following letter:
I’m hoping some of you might have faced this situation and can offer some ideas. My almost 7 year old daughter, Rachel [pseudonym] just ‘found out’ about her birth parents in China. She knew she was from China, that I came and adopted her etc. It was only on our Forever Day last November when I read her ‘Crazy Cakes’ (like always) that she finally understood that she had birth parents. Rachel asked if they were dead and I said no. I said her birth parents couldn’t care for her like they wanted to and added that like America, China had its own laws, and not everyone could keep their children. I believe I told her (when asked) that we couldn’t find them.
I’m a single mom and we are very close. I’ve told her since day one that we’re together forever. After our discussion, I said she could ask me anything anytime – even if she thought the questions might sound silly. Two days later, she asked if certain friends were adopted like her. Many of her friends are adopted and I said yes.
About 5 days later, she had two nightmares in one night. I let her sleep with me for a week and then we tried to resume our routine. Since then, she is concerned with monsters at night. Doesn’t want to be apart from me. She’s just ‘scared’. I stay with her til she falls asleep – which doesn’t take long after reading for a while. She sleeps with the main light on.
During the night, I’m called in to her room between 1-5 times a night. I stay a while ’til I think she’s in a deep enough sleep to go. Though she goes back to sleep quickly, she’ll open her eyes to check that I’m there. Rachel’s new mantra is ‘I want to sleep with you’ or ‘I want to be with you.’ I’ve tried a number strategies but nothing seems to work.
She’s sensitive and can be anxious in general. She is prone to stuttering but she isn’t now and her school work is fine. I’m assuming the night fears and new adoption info are related.
By the way, Rachel also now claims that adult TV shows can give her nightmares (she hasn’t had one since) so she doesn’t want to be around it. I’ve told her to leave the room if it happens to be on but she doesn’t like that idea. Sometimes I think she’s trying to control things but I know from the tone and tears that her fears are real.
Dear Mom, (I wrote back)
Your daughter’s responses are normal for an adoptee of her age. At seven she has more intellectual and emotional capacity to grasp what happened to her, and what could happen with you.
Your nurturing sounds right on track; when a child gets scared about these issues it is vital to provide reassurance, both with extra support and clear limits to show you feel “safe” and trust she will be.
There are four basic questions Rachel needs answered given her new intellectual and emotional developments:
- what happened to me in the past?
- did I make it happen, was it some how my fault?
- can this loss happen again, and if not, why?
- who will take care of me now and in the future, even if you die?
Do your best to differentiate between the way her first family situation and your own. The most important being that if you were to die, you would have a plan she knew about (get that will and guardianship in order!) and that you would tell her in advance (barring an errant truck).
Knowing in advance what will happen is an important aspect of control. Rachel is telling you she doesn’t have a sense of control (feels and acts helpless) by trying to control your separations now and claiming she can’t leave the room when the TV gets scary.
Tell her when she was a baby she couldn’t get away from the scary situation, but now she is a big girl and she can be in control. Get her to tell you how she can take care of herself.
Don’t try to make things perfect ; what ever adoptee knows is that anything can happen. Answers that deny this fact will make you a liar in your child’s eyes. Be honest and help Rachel tolerate her sad, scared feelings.
Keep your conversation going with a focus on the difference between her first parents’ choice and your choice. Your job is to help Rachel differentiate between different family situations so she doesn’t equate you with her first family and therefore fear you will treat her the same way.
I hope this is helpful. Rachel’s feelings are nearly universal with internationally adoptees of her age.